Common Errors (28): Cleopatra’s Viper

Cleopatra with a cobra ("Esquiline Venus"; Musei Capitolini, Rome)

It’s a great story, perfectly suited for a theater or movie adaptation: the final moments of the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra, who had herself bitten by a viper. There is indeed ancient evidence for this story, which is told by Plutarch (Marc Antony, 86):

It is said that the viper (aspis) was brought with those figs and leaves and lay hidden beneath them, for thus Cleopatra had given orders, that the reptile might fasten itself upon her body without her being aware of it. But when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said: “There it is, you see,” and baring her arm she held it out for the bite.

However, this cannot be true. A viper’s bite is not fatal. Only a few scholars have realized the problem, and they have argued that in fact a cobra must be meant. However, the Greeks and Romans were perfectly capable of distinguishing several kinds of snakes. The poet Lucian even offers a catalog of reptiles (with their poisonous effects) in his Pharsalia, book nine.

I do not know what really happened, but I have an idea: Octavian sent a soldier to kill the queen, because he could not afford to capture her. Just imagine that he returned to Rome with a woman tied to his triumphal chariot. The Romans would joke that he had not won a major war, but had merely defeated a woman. There is, of course, no evidence for this theory, but at least it is possible. That’s more than we can say about a fatal viper’s bite.

<Overview of Common Errors>

9 Responses to Common Errors (28): Cleopatra’s Viper

  1. Although many put forth that solution, it makes absolutely no sense to me upon reflection. I mean, first off, Romans paraded plenty of eastern Queens in their triumphs – including Kleopatra’s own sister, Arsinoe. Secondly, if Octavian had had Kleopatra killed, why the elaborate ruse? If he had merely said, “Oh, she was killed in the skirmish when we took the palace” or “Her own people killed her in the hope of currying favor, like they did with Pompey” no one in the Roman world would have batted a lash. Heck, after the successful propaganda war that Octavian had waged, if he had been responsible for the death, there’s no way he wouldn’t have taken credit for it.

    And also, if he was responsible for it, why did he choose such a complicated cover story involving the snake? It would have been unnecessary from his perspective – but very much so from Kleopatra’s. The snake, after all, could represent a number of important Greco-Egyptian deities – Wadjet, Isis, Serapis, Agathos Daimon, Agathe Tykhe, etc. As Wadjet it was specifically linked with royal power and authority (eg. the uraeus or serpent-crown). Kleopatra was also clever propagandist – as we see from her encounters with all the important men in her life – so I think she was sending a clear message to her subjects, and to posterity, about the nature of her reign by choosing to end her life in this powerfully symbolic way.

  2. Bill Thayer says:

    I too vote for the story being a piece of Cleopatran propaganda; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that her death actually happened that way.

  3. I think she was sending a clear message to her subjects, and to posterity, about the nature of her reign by choosing to end her life in this powerfully symbolic way.

    Possible, plausible. It explains how the story came into being. Yet, still no dead by a viper’s bite.

  4. It explains how the story came into being. Yet, still no dead by a viper’s bite.

    Definitely not. Not only is there the question of the potency of the viper’s bite, but those suckers are huuuuuuuuge. There’s no way two hand-maidens would have been able to carry a full-grown viper, let alone sneak it past the guards.

    I do believe that Kleopatra was killed by snake bite, but it was almost certainly a different snake – probably the cobra. I’m not sure why the confusion with the asp crept in, unless there was some sort of symbolic meaning behind it. That, or Octavian just screwed up when representing it on his triumph, and the error stuck ever after.

  5. Bill Thayer Says

    I’d just like to take a moment and profess my undying love and gratitude for you and the work you’re doing. By putting all of these important texts online in easily accessible formats, you have immensely helped my own studies. It is truly amazing to have this wealth of information just a click away. So, thank you, thank you, thank you!

    [Hopefully that didn’t come across as too fanboyish and stalkery.]

  6. Bill Thayer says:

    Thank you Sannion; I should have such stalkery in my life….

    By the way — but don’t hold your breath — I’m thinking about putting online Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar, to give you, and others of course, something to study. It is, I believe, now out of copyright, at least in the edition I have, which is the same that I studied from when I was a teenager. Still, I need to check that. The Third Edition (1950) carries a copyright notice, and the preface to the Third Edition grandly states that major changes were needed; then goes on to state that typesetting is expensive, so none were made, but an extensive additions and corrections section was added instead: which seems to run no more than 5 pages: all of this smells of publishers milking a cash cow for what can be got, and coming close to asserting copyright in material in the public domain to protect said Cow. In fact, there is no penalty in any country I know of for falsely asserting copyright, so more cynical publishers might as well have done so; to their (half) credit, they didn’t. Still, I need to check very carefully.

    It also remains to figure out the mechanics of onlining it, since — in the absence of commonly available hieroglyphic fonts and a Unicode mapping — it will have to be at least partly as images.

  7. Oh, how exciting! I’ve consulted that work in our university library, but it’d be wonderful to have it readily available, since it’s such a valuable text. (And yeah, I can imagine it’s a real chore transcribing all of the hieroglyphs or foreign symbols/fonts in a work like that.)

    Is there any plan to get Aelian up on your site? I’m not even sure if there’s a Public Domain English translation available. (At least one that’s readable: I’ve seen an atrocious Victorian version that practically has to be retranslated to be usable.) Our library has all the Loebs, but they lack a proper index and it’s a real chore to search through them unless you know specifically what you’re looking for.

  8. Huh. I just checked and it looks like you’ve already got the Thomas Stanley translation on your site. (Which most decidedly isn’t Victorian: where’d I get that from?) It’s also much more readable than I remember – I wonder if I stumbled across some other translation on a different site or something?

  9. Bill Thayer says:

    With Gardiner the chore is not the problem: it’s just not possible. No hieroglyphic font exists with the thousands of very necessary characters required, and no Unicode space seems to have been set aside for a hieroglyphic encoding.

    Aelian — I assume you mean the writer of the Various Stories and the Animal Stuff, not Aelianus Tacticus the military writer — is partly online: the former is on my parent site, managed by my partner James Eason: in a 17c English translation. On the Nature of Animals, to give it a more formal title, is not onsite in English, but a Latin translation is unofficially up on my site here; and some small portions of it are also online in small squibs, with the original Greek here. Neither one of those links is officially up, so bookmark them, otherwise I give no clue onsite to them, except in a very rare link from passages in Smith’s Dictionary, etc. The Greek in the latter pages is often in TLG transcription; it’s slowly being switched over to Unicode, but again that’s James’s site, not mine: I have no control over it, and James is busier than I am. I know of no public domain English translation of the Animals.

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